Get the Most Out of Your Phone Screen Interview Questions

By Robert Half on April 9, 2020 at 10:00am

As a hiring manager, you know what a good resume and cover letter look like. You also know that a good resume and cover letter might promise a lot, but fail to deliver the candidate you need. Whoever you decide to advance to the first round of vetting, the phone interview questions you ask your top candidates will be a critical piece of winnowing the field and making a successful hire.

Time always matters, so you should be both efficient and strategic during this initial call. Questions for a screening interview will of course touch on whether a candidate's hard skills, experience, education and certifications are right for the open position. But as you check off the boxes, pay attention to soft skills and how the candidate presents during the call. At the end of a phone screen interview, you want to be confident a candidate can not only do the job, but they’d be a good fit in your organizational culture.

Open-ended, in-depth questions aren’t necessary at this stage of the hiring process. A screening interview is typically a 15- to 30-minute phone call. Your objective here is to narrow your list of top candidates to the handful you want to consider for formal interviews. That’s when you can go deep.

Read on for some phone interview questions to ask during this first call, tips for what to look for — including red flags — and what comes after.

Planning the phone screening interview

As you would for any business conversation, you want to practice good etiquette when scheduling and conducting a phone screen interview. Respect the interviewee’s time by keeping to the schedule. Respect their availability for the phone call, too: If they have a job, even if they’re working from home, they may not be able to talk until after business hours.

Approach every conversation with a blank slate, and treat each candidate fairly and equally. Remain fully engaged during every call. All that can be easier said than done: When you conduct one phone screen interview after another, it’s easy to race through the questions you ask each person. If that sounds like you, refrain from stacking up the calls back-to-back. And set aside a time and — if you’re not at your office — a location you can conduct the screening interview free of noise or other distractions.

Remember, you’re engaging with an external audience. A professional, thoughtful screening interview will burnish your business reputation; a hurried process and a gruff manner won’t reflect well on you or your firm. Keep in mind that your top candidates are evaluating you as closely as you are them. Some might decline an invitation to a formal interview if they’re at all uncomfortable during this initial contact.

Finally, once you settle on your shortlist, review the resumes once more before scheduling the calls. Then create a list of phone interview questions to ask — and be consistent with what you ask each interviewee. You want to make a fair comparison of the talent when deciding which candidates you’d like to advance to the next stage.

Good questions to ask for an interview

Tailor the phone interview questions below to suit your industry and the role you’re staffing. But consider, too, the candidate’s professional history, or lack thereof. A recent college graduate can’t refer to their career successes, for example, but screening questions can be framed to allow candidates to draw on their experience in course seminars and team projects, as well as their volunteer work and self-taught skills. Leadership, drive, industriousness, talent and other valued qualities can be demonstrated in many ways. Give the same consideration for candidates with a gap in their work history: For example, a parent reentering the workforce after raising a couple of kids, or an out-of-work professional two months after a layoff.

1. The basics

Keep it simple and start with questions that will set the job candidate at ease. A screening interview can be stressful for many people. Start it off easy for them, and you’ll get a truer picture of what they can bring to the table.

  • Can you tell me about your background?
  • Why are you looking for a new job?
  • Where are you in your job search?
  • When could you start working?

TIP: Even simple questions can help determine whether to move forward with a candidate. For example, are they available when you want to hire? Someone who says they can’t start a new job for a month isn’t going to work out when you need to staff the position right now.

2. Salary expectations

Money can be an awkward topic to bring up — if not for you, then certainly for many candidates. But you want to know whether the candidate’s salary expectations are in the ballpark of what you can offer.

  • How much would you like to earn in this position?
  • Are there specific benefits that are important to you?
  • Would it be a deal breaker for you if we don’t offer _____ benefit or the salary figure you quoted?

TIP: Many candidates are reluctant to give anything more than a salary range this early on. If you can’t get a clear idea of whether there’s a financial fit, you can revisit the topic of salary later. But don’t waste the candidate’s time, or yours, if you suspect there’s a gaping difference between their salary expectations and the budget you’re working with. Let them know the range you’re considering and ask whether they’re still interested in the position.

3. Desire for the job

Before discussing skills and training, your phone interview questions should gauge a candidate’s interest in the position. Questions about the role they have now — and why they want to leave it — can also tell you about their suitability for the one you’re hiring for.

  • Why do you want to leave your current job?
  • What attracted you to apply for this position?
  • Describe your current job responsibilities.
  • What motivates you in a job?

TIP: Listen for workplace culture fit as well as interpersonal skills, problem solving skills, leadership qualities, initiative and other soft skills. A candidate who’s looking for a greater challenge, for instance, might give you reason to consider them for a job that’s more demanding than their current role.

4. Knowledge of the company

You can’t expect candidates to have read your annual report or know the history of your company, but anyone who’s serious about the position you’re hiring for will have prepared for the interview by doing some research.

  • What attracted you to our organization?
  • What do you know about our products or services?
  • Do you use our products or services?

TIP: Candidates who support your company’s mission, and who are interested in its product, can be gold. Just as you want employees who are interested in the job, not just the paycheck, you also want employees who have a positive view of the company itself. That can play an important role in staff retention.

5. Resume details

This part of the phone screen interview will likely take up most of the scheduled time. Ask candidates what they hope to get out of the job — and how they see themselves contributing to the role and the company. Do they have the skills, experience and aptitude you’re looking for? Also, raise any questions you have about the job candidate's resume and cover letter.

  • What skills have you recently gained or strengthened?
  • How are your skills a match for this job?
  • What did you do during the yearlong gap in your employment (and why did you leave your last employer)?
  • Did your internship at _____ give you specific experience to apply to this job? (If they’re a recent college graduate.)
  • What questions do you have for me?

TIP: Give the candidate some space to talk here. You want to allow them to fill in their resume gaps, be it their work history, skills section, or education and training. Ask follow-up questions when you need more clarity.

Phone interview red flags

Begin every phone screen interview with an open mind and a positive attitude. Assume the best of your top candidates, including their honesty and integrity. But keep in mind that, well, sometimes a candidate might misrepresent their skills and professional background, unintentionally or not. Or, maybe they’re not the best judge of the impact they had in a past or current role. So, assess answers for how the candidate would meet your hiring needs, but listen too for warning signs that this person might not be an ideal match for your company. Here are some potential red flags:

  • A lack of enthusiasm — Does the candidate seem excited about the prospect of working at your firm, or do they seem like they’re simply going through the motions during the screening interview? If you’re not hearing the love, then bring it up. “What excites you about this job?” or “Why do you want to work for our company?” are both good phone interview questions to ask your candidates.
  • No questions — It’s not a deal breaker, but toward the end of the call, most candidates should have a question or two to ask about the team, job or company. It can be a sign of not only the person’s interest in the job, but their preparation for the call (search online for “What is a phone screening” or “What is a phone screen interview,” and you’ll see a lot of advice for candidates to come prepared with a question to ask the interviewer).
  • Sounding distracted during the interview — Sometimes, life interrupts a phone screen interview. A job candidate might have to answer an unexpected knock on the door, for example, or tend to a demanding child or a howling dog. In such situations, be patient and be fair. But if the candidate sounds as though they’re browsing Instagram or are otherwise multitasking while speaking to you, take it as a clue that they just aren’t that into you.
  • Negative comments about former employers — It’s never a good sign when an interviewee badmouths a current or former employer. Such behavior is unprofessional, and it demonstrates poor tact and diplomacy — key soft skills in almost any role. It can also mean the candidate takes no responsibility for their own part in workplace dynamics.
  • A focus on money — As discussed above, not everybody is comfortable talking money so early in the hiring process. But some people focus on it like a laser. When a candidate repeatedly returns to the topic of salary or benefits during a screening interview, it might be a signal they’re primarily focused on the money and perks — not the job and company.
  • Cursing — It’s not that cursing never happens in the workplace, but no one should use foul language when discussing a job opportunity. Bad language during a phone screen interview is another example of unprofessionalism and poor soft skills, and reason to wonder how the person would do when presenting to senior management or clients.

Following up on the phone call

When you’ve completed your last phone screen interview, you’ll have some tough decisions to make: Who among your top candidates to invite to a formal, more rigorous interview. No matter the state of the current hiring market, you need to make the right choices here: You want the best talent on your team, not the competition’s.

You’ll also have to make some decisions on how to conduct the next step in the hiring process. Whether you’re creating an interview panel or scheduling a series of one-on-one meetings, discuss with your team the type of interview questions to ask, good questions to ask for an interview, who will ask which questions, and how you’ll score candidates.

Move quickly to schedule the interviews with the candidates and the hiring team. If applicable for the role you’re hiring for, ask the candidates to send work examples your team can review in advance of the interview.

During this time of social distancing, you’ll likely want to schedule a remote interview. For most managers and job seekers, this is a new twist — and potential complication — to a familiar part of the hiring process. You might already be comfortable with the technology and even the video platform you’ll use — they’re often the same tools you use in your everyday work. But interviewing on camera can be very different than a face-to-face, so you would do well to read up on tips for conducting a remote interview.

Sound like you’re back at the starting line again? Well, in a way, you are. The phone screening interview sets the stage for what can be a time- and labor-intensive hiring effort. From here, you’ll dig deeper into candidates’ background, assess (and possibly test) their skill levels, collect feedback from staff who meet the finalists, check references and consider the salary offer. But if you’ve conducted a thoughtful phone vetting, you’ll better guarantee that the candidates who advance to this first round of formal interviews are the best your company can choose from. And that’s a pretty good place to start.

More From the Blog...